March 2009

Scott Blackwood

Flame in the Mouth

Apocalyptic Insides

There is certainly no reason why the effects of redemption must be plain to us and I think that they usually are not. This is where we share Christ’s agony when he was about to die and cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
-- Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being

So then because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.
-- Revelation 3:16

Andre Dubus and Flannery O’Connor explored anagogical or spiritual questions more directly than other post-war American short story writers. They made no apologies. Their obsessions, story after story, tend to be the same ones: sacrifice, redemption, and the nature of sin. Some critics have pointed to their obsessions as limitations -- as if somehow they lacked a broader vision. But these critics have mistaken clarity of vision for its absence, the way someone might, at a glance, mistake a highly polished glass door for an open one. To fully experience their works, you have to bring those obsessions into you, like a confidant. As Robert Boswell says in his incisive and passionate book of essays on fiction writing, The Half-Known World, writers whose works are suffused in mystery, writers who’ll be remembered, have obsessions that lure their readers into a numinous half-world, where the reader and the characters have one foot in the everyday and another in the anagogical. It’s this straddling of worlds that makes the commonplace strange. And it’s this quality of strangeness that allows us to see ourselves in revelatory ways.

Flannery O’Connor’s characters, no matter how initially comical, always find themselves, in the end, straddling these two worlds. They believe they live in a fully mapped one of categorical redemption, pamphlet religion, and righteousness. Think of the old lady in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or the “progressive” son in “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” They are the proverbial “lukewarm,” who will be spat out. Like most of us, O’Connor says, these characters’ lives and opinions are so papered over with reasonableness and self-delusion, that they’ve forgotten what suffering is. And can’t be redeemed until they remember. Who ever said we were meant for happiness? O’Connor seems to say. Hers is a wider, more cataclysmic vision. 

In Andre Dubus’s devastating “A Father’s Story,” the father of the title is pressed, after a life in which he’s squandered many things, to make a terrible bargain: essentially sacrificing someone else’s child for his own. In doing so, he moves into this alternative universe, where suffering is the water and we’re the fish who swim in it. And Dubus risks everything -- even the short story maxim of thou shalt not have your characters talk with God -- to make the reader feel this water, as if for the first time.

It’s in the slipstream of this tradition that David McGlynn’s carefully wrought, spiritually obsessed, stories appear. The stories in The End of the Straight and Narrow are about the ways we struggle to re-imagine ourselves through the shape of our pain. McGlynn’s people, too, straddle both worlds, the everyday and the anagogical, not belonging to either, and so suffering all the more. A feeling of biblical dread runs through these fine stories, as if everything hangs in the balance because there is so little left.

In the introduction to the collection, “Moonland on Fire,” a teenage boy, Nolan, comes to stay with his father and his father’s girlfriend Rhonda, a proselytizing born-again Christian for whom the father had left his wife. Rhonda, who is obsessed with her dead first husband, Kirk, a helicopter pilot, is thinking alternately of Jesus and Kirk when she tells Nolan to prepare:

“If you died, do you know what would happen?"

“Hopefully that’s a long ways off.”

“You never know. Jesus will come like a thief in the night.”

Nolan hunches forward, nods. Rhonda feels his long exhale against the back of her bare knee and thinks of Kirk's breath against her neck… she feels Kirk all around her -- his voice, his heat -- she feels him reaching. I’m here. She is desperate to hear Nolan say Jesus. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. All you have to say is “Yes.”

Nolan shrugs. “Okay. Yes.”

Everything here is balled like a fist: Jesus. Salvation. Kirk the dead pilot. Sexual desire. Fear. And the failure of words to cleave to acts.    

The characters in “Moonland on Fire” come to their God lukewarm and then are spat out, confused, angry. But more than that -- as the wild fires roar through the California hills where their house sits, you feel this universalized, how their fevered, apocalyptic insides have become the outside.

Rhonda tells Nolan, “This is how it starts.”  

"What?”

“The End Times. It will be revealed in fire and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work.” 

Something in McGlynn’s characters would like the End Times to come because it would burn away all the terrible ambiguities they struggle with. But he doesn’t let them off that easy. The world goes on. They’ll have to slog on like the rest of us, try to put words with acts, to reshape their damaged, half-in, half-out selves into something worthy of redemption.